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MetroAccess alternative pilot program would pay for car-sharing rides

The AbilitiesRide pilot program would replace MetroAccess vans with subsidies for rides in services such as Uber or Lyft, which in some cases would be cheaper for Metro. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

WASHINGTON — In its quest to look for cuts across the board, Metro plans to temper spiking costs for paratransit service with a pilot program that would pay for rides on Uber, Lyft or similar services. The program is slated to begin March 1.

According to documents prepared for a Metro board committee’s meeting Thursday, “Abilities-Ride” would give MetroAccess riders, beginning with those in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the option to book rides on the same day, which is not an option available now.

However, the new service would not meet access requirements set in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Metro staff says the service would just be an option; riders could still choose to use regular MetroAccess service. Metro promises to “not steer eligible customers to the alternative services,” and to not allow use of the service to affect eligibility for regular service for people with disabilities.

Metro would subsidize up to $15 per trip for users, plus up to $5 in other fees per trip, compared with the $44 Metro pays for each MetroAccess trip. Metro staff estimate it could save the agency up to $6 million in the first full year. Riders would be allowed up to four one-way trips in a single day, and would pay the first $5 of each trip as well as any additional fare beyond $20.

D.C. has a similar MetroAccess alternative program tied to the taxi system, called TransportDC, and a similar subsidy system has been used in the St. Petersburg, Florida, area.

If approved by the Metro Board this month, Metro will then put out a request for proposals that could lead to partnerships with up to three different companies. At least one of the three would be required to offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Other factors in the selection will include how accessible the app is for disabled riders; driver qualifications; training and background checks, and cost. All drivers would be required to have background checks, accept riders with service animals and have training on “serving customers with disabilities.”

Since planning has been in the works for a while, the planned savings is already included in Metro’s budget for this year, but more savings will be needed in the future.

With an aging population, the demand for MetroAccess service is projected to rise.

The increase in use of the more expensive service comes even as ridership on the regular rail and bus system continues to fall, and Metro looks at a budget gap that is projected to grow into the future.

The “alligator gap” could lead to increased contribution of tax dollars from local jurisdictions, higher fares, service cuts or a combination. It has been dogging Metro for years.

In addition to financial problems, Metro board committees will also take up on Thursday the latest information about delays on the transit system, crime and injuries, and a proposed public hearing on significant service cuts.

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